President Obama delivered a "major" address on US counter-terrorism policies today at the National Defense University in Washington. It was largely devoid of any real news. The professorial president (a) spoke contemplatively about interest balancing -- some instances of which pose legitimate quandaries -- (b) defended his administration's heavy use of drone strikes as an effective, legal and proportional means of fighting terrorism, and (c) renewed calls to close the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay. As I said, nothing new. The speech was a blend of sound policy, thoughtful analysis, rank hypocrisy, bad ideas and occasional incoherence. It was framed as an attempt to break free from both the Clinton administration's pre-9/11 mentality that left us vulnerable to attack, and the post-9/11 mindset of the Bush administration. Unsurprisingly, Obama touted his abolition of so-called "torture" (without mentioning that some of the now-proscribed harsh measures helped break the mastermind of 9/11 and bring Osama bin Laden to justice). He also vigorously justified using a drone strike to kill Al-Qaeda leader and US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. He did not mention the other three Americans that have met the same fate. If Obama hoped his remarks would shift the narrative away from his administration's scandals, I'm skeptical he'll succeed far past tonight's evening news. I more or less agree with this:
This speech will be forgotten in three hours. Distraction over.— Allahpundit (@allahpundit) May 23, 2013
This would be an A-list political story if it weren't buried beneath the avalanche of scandal that's consumed the nation's attention and undermined the president's approval ratings in recent weeks. We reported on Monday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is maneuvering to execute the so-called "nuclear option" on filibusters of executive appointments, perhaps as soon as July. Since the game plan was initially sketched out by a liberal blogger in the Washington Post (who also confirmed that the White House has bestowed its blessing on the power grab), more circumstantial evidence has emerged that appears to confirm Reid's intentions:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that he will delay votes on several of President Obama’s nominees for key posts until July, a decision raising the prospect that he’ll seek further changes to Senate rules that would allow executive appointments to be confirmed by a simple majority. Senate leaders had considered holding a vote this week to confirm Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a nomination Republicans have maintained they would filibuster unless the Obama administration agreed to overhaul the agency. Action is also pending on two of Obama’s Cabinet nominations — Thomas E. Perez for Labor secretary and Gina McCarthy for EPA administrator — after party-line votes in Senate committees last week. Two other Cabinet picks face confirmation hearings later this week. At his weekly news conference, Reid told reporters that he would not bring those nominations to the full Senate until after it considers two major pieces of legislation, the farm bill and comprehensive immigration reform. “So we'll have to look at July,” he said, with the possible exception of a pending nominee for the D.C. Court of Appeals. “We're going to make sure that all the nominees have votes.”
Senate Democrats may be itching to hit the nuclear trigger more than ever in light of two federal courts' repudiations of the president's unconstitutional "recess" appointments made while Congress was not technically in recess. Regardless of their motives, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is already warning Reid that any further action to curtail the rights of the minority would effectively "blow up" the institution of the Senate. In a floor speech this morning, McConnell tied Democrats' potential filibuster power grab to the federal government's "culture of intimidation" playing out in living color at the IRS, HHS, and DOJ:
“For example, Senate Democrats were incensed that Republicans had the temerity to exercise their Advice and Consent responsibility to block a grand total of one — that’s right, one — nominee to the D.C. Circuit. What did our Democrat colleagues do in response? They consulted with the White House and pledged to pack the D.C. Circuit with appointees, quote, ‘one way or the other’ — meaning using the nuclear option...
The Senate has confirmed 19 of the President’s judicial nominees so far this year. By this point in his second term, President Bush had a grand total of four judicial confirmations.
Moreover, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee just voted unanimously to support the President’s current nomination to the D.C. Circuit. And the Senate Republican Conference agreed yesterday to hold an up and down vote on his nomination, which has only been on the Executive Calendar since Monday, to occur after the Memorial Day Recess. That way, Members who do not serve on the Judiciary Committee could have a week to evaluate this important nomination. Instead, the Majority Leader chose to jam the Minority—he rejected our offer for an up or down vote and filed cloture on the nomination just one day after it appeared on the Executive Calendar...
And regarding nominees generally, Senate Republicans have been willing to work with the President to get his team in place:
The Secretary of Energy was confirmed 97 to 0.
The Secretary of the Interior was confirmed 87 to 11.
The Secretary of the Treasury was confirmed 71 to 26.
The Director of the [OMB] was confirmed 96 to 0.
And the Secretary of State was confirmed 94 to 3—just 7 days after the Senate received his nomination. So these continued threats to use the nuclear option point to the Majority’s own culture of intimidation here in the Senate. Their view is that you had better confirm the people we want, when we want them, or we’ll break the rules of the Senate to change the rules so you can’t stop us. So much for respecting the rights of the minority. So much for a meaningful application of Advice and Consent."
- The president's job approval rating has dipped underwater at 45/51, an eight-point negative swing since last month. He's at 40/52 among independents.
- Attorney General Eric Holder's job approval has plummeted to 28/40 with approximately a third of voters not knowing enough to answer. This may fuel whispers that Holder may be on his way out.
- Obama's trustworthiness quotient is now split evenly, down from positive territory in the months leading up to the election.
- A whopping 68 percent of Americans believe the federal government is "out of control" and threatening basic liberties. Republicans ought to concentrate on articulating an agenda that speaks to that widespread disaffection.
- More Americans label Obama a "lame duck" president than say he's still effective.
The poll asks a few questions about the scandals themselves, which yielded results not too dissimilar from the WaPo and CNN findings we've highlighted this week. In short, people are concerned, think the stories are legitimate, and want to know more. Fox just released a second tranche of data, which also features some interesting nuggets. On gay marriage, a clear majority (41/52) opposes amending the Constitution to define marriage as one man and one woman, down from (58/34) in favor ten years ago. And as much as the trio of current scandals may be weighing down Obama's numbers, there's another big wet blanket draped over his presidency:
22. Do you think it would be better to leave the new health care law in place, or would it bebetter to go back to the health care system that was in place in 2009?
Better to keep law: 34 percent
Better to go back to previous system: 56 percent
Fox's 34 percent support level is nearly identical to Kaiser's figure we reported in April. In the new poll, Obamacare is upside down by double digits on this question among men, women, voters of every age group, Republicans and independents. Only Democrats and non-whites say they prefer the new law to the previous system. By a two-to-one margin, Americans say their families will be worse off under the "Affordable Care Act" than prior to its passage. So much for the president's assurances that the law's roll-out is already over for 90 percent of Americans, who should already be "enjoying" its benefits. Obamacare is toxic, and it's likely to get worse as the logistical "train wreck" of implementation plays out, premiums continue to rise, costs explode, and the tainted IRS kicks off enforcement of the hyper-unpopular mandate tax. It could be that the health law is hurting the president just as much as any of the scandals. John Nolte notes that the president's job approval has sunk below the 50 percent mark in four new surveys, including this one. I'll leave you with one of Philip Klein's five reasons why Obama's scandals aren't prone to backfire on Republicans like Bill Clinton's impeachment saga did:
Clinton’s scandal involved sex - Without re-litigating the entire impeachment debate, it’s fair to say that Clinton’s scandal revolved around his sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. This made it a lot easier for Clinton to appeal to Americans’ sense of forgiveness and portray political opponents as prying into his personal life as opposed to dealing with the nation’s problems. In contrast, though both sides debate Obama’s culpability, the issues at the heart of the current scandals are all very serious — dealing with a terrorist attack on a U.S. ambassador, IRS targeting ideological groups of a certain stripe and the Department of Justice spying on journalists. According to a CNN poll released Sunday, “Americans appear to be taking all three controversies very seriously, with 55% saying the IRS and Benghazi matters are very important to the nation and 53% saying the same thing about the AP case.” So, it’s harder to put Republicans on the defensive for investigating these issues than it was to attack the 1998 GOP for expending so much effort investigating Clinton for lying about oral sex.
Click through for the other four. I wonder how the public's opinion on Benghazi might be impacted by this story, which we mentioned on Tuesday but hasn't quite broken through yet -- particularly in light of this data point from the administration.
According to Finney, the fact that Mitt Romney didn't make a huge deal out of the IRS targeting scandal last year is somehow proof that the whole thing is essentially a non-story and wasn't buried until after the election. Where to begin? As a fellow panelist incredulously points out, the revelation of IRS abuse wasn't public knowledge in 2012. It just came out this month. Sure, everyone knew that Congress was demanding answers from the IRS about alleged targeting practices, but there was no public evidence that the victimized groups' suspicions were well-founded. IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman even told Congress under oath that political targeting was "absolutely not" transpiring. That was in March of 2012. In other words, Mitt Romney didn't beat the drum on this major scandal because...the major scandal didn't exist in the public sphere yet. He, like nearly every other American, didn't know about it. Indeed, one purpose of the current investigations and hearings is to determine who knew what, and when.
We know for certain that the IRS' own audit flagged inappropriate targeting in May of last year, and that senior Treasury Department officials became aware of it shortly thereafter. The White House's own timeline has shifted several times in recent days, so they've been tough to pin down. We don't yet know if the president's political or campaign team knew of the IRS scandal before the election (though even some liberals are beginning to admit it's hard to believe they didn't). What's self-evident is that Republicans in Congress and the Romney campaign had no indication that this bombshell was looming and had no concrete proof that a codified political targeting program had been in place at the IRS for years. Finney's point seems to be that Republicans should have made a giant stink about a theory, without any solid substantiation. It's not difficult to imagine how Finney and her cohorts at MSNBC would have reacted if the GOP had adopted such an approach last fall. Her entire "point" here is imbecilic and purposefully disingenuous. It's one thing to try to re-write distant history. It's another to do the same with still-unfolding history. I'm not sure who she thinks she's fooling, aside from those MSNBC viewers who are eager to be fooled, but kudos for at least slipping in the "overreach" talking point. Bravo.
Today's IRS hearing featured a newsworthy flurry of activity at the very beginning, then promptly devolved into the now-familiar soup of "to the best of my recollection" evasions from former IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman. Two significant facts did emerge, however -- no thanks to Shulman, who remembers nothing of note and takes responsibility for nothing, including his decision not to correct his inaccurate testimony to Congress about targeting last year. First, we discovered that the IRS' in-house review of the abusive targeting ended in the spring of 2012, months before the presidential election. Neither the public nor Congress were made aware of this probe's existence, let alone its findings:
Rep. Darrel Issa, the committee's chairman, said that the committee learned just yesterday that the IRS completed its own investigation a year before a Treasury Department Inspector General report was completed. But despite the IRS recognizing in May 2012 that its employees were treating right-wing groups differently from other organizations, Issa said, IRS personnel withheld those conclusions from legislators. 'Just yesterday the committee interviewed Holly Paz, the director of exempt organizations, rulings and agreements, division of the IRS,' Issa said. 'While a tremendous amount of attention is centered about the Inspector General's report, or investigation, the committee has learned from Ms. Paz that she in fact participated in an IRS internal investigation that concluded in May of 2012 - May 3 of 2012 - and found essentially the same thing that Mr. George found more than a year later.' 'Think about it,' he continued: 'For more than a year, the IRS knew that it had inappropriately targeted groups of Americans based on their political beliefs, and without mentioning it, and in fact without honestly answering questions that were the result of this internal investigation.'
Democratic operatives have little to do but desperately flog the "Republican overreach!" talking point, which several recent polls have debunked. An example from one DSCC shill:
Looks like NRSC isn't heeding warnings from Cook, Rothenberg, & many GOP operatives not to overreach on IRS scandal #like1998— Matt Canter (@mattcanter) May 22, 2013
UPDATE - Good questions: "Why was George, the IG, reluctant to release 'incremental information'
when the IRS itself had concluded in May 2012 that its anti-conservative
criteria for tax-exempt orgs were FUBAR? Didn’t his office specifically
say they’d keep the committee updated?" The Inspector General was bound to keep Congress up to date on his investigation. He did not, according to Issa. Why not? I say again, hmm.
Bear in mind, this statement came before Lerner refused to answer questions and left the room.
A top IRS official in the division that reviews nonprofit groups will invoke the 5th Amendment and refuse to answer questions before a House committee investigating the agency’s improper screening of conservative nonprofit groups. Lois Lerner, the head of the exempt organizations division of the IRS, won’t answer questions about what she knew about the improper screening — or why she didn’t disclose it to Congress, according to a letter from her defense lawyer, William W. Taylor III. Lerner was scheduled to appear before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday. “She has not committed any crime or made any misrepresentation but under the circumstances she has no choice but to take this course,” said a letter by Taylor to committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Vista).
Ah. Lerner's committed no crime, her lawyer insists, but she's going to decline to answer Congress' questions in order to avoid, er, incriminating herself. Just to cement her own tone-deafness, Lerner had her lawyer attempt to exempt her from today's proceedings for reasons that will garner precious little sympathy from the American people:
Since Lerner won’t answer questions, Taylor asked that she be excused from appearing, saying that would “have no purpose other than to embarrass or burden her.” There was no immediate word whether the committee will grant her request.
Lerner taking 5th is worst hearing outcome for WH: hint of potential criminality to screw-ups IG didn't find partisan, much less criminal— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) May 21, 2013
From the start, the White House's response on this potentially explosive matter has been grudging at best and, in retrospect, ignorant or arrogant or both ... We still don't know the details of how the special scrutiny of conservative groups began in 2010, who approved it, or who first learned about it higher up at the IRS and the Treasury Department. The White House says that it knew nothing about the matter until the counsel received a heads up about the pending IG report. And yet tea party and other conservative groups had been complaining about the IRS scrutiny since 2010, and IRS officials had publicly reassured members of Congress that there was nothing unusual or unwarranted going on. With two winning presidential campaigns built on successful grassroots fundraising, with a former White House counsel (in 2010-11) who is one of the Democrats' leading experts on campaign law (Bob Bauer), with former top campaign officials having been ensconced as staffers in the White House (David Axelrod, who left for the reelection campaign in early 2011, and Dan Pfeiffer among others), it's hard to imagine that the Obama inner circle was oblivious to the issue of what the IRS was doing in Cincinnati.
UPDATE - To further whet your appetite for this morning's parade of pleading the fifth, here's FactCheck.org's roster of IRS lies and misstatements so far, several of which have been perpetrated by Ms. Lerner. As Carol reminded us last night, though, Lerner doesn't have carte blanche to evade questions. She can only invoke her right against self-incrimination if her answer could "put her in legal jeopardy."
Simply stunning, via the Associated Press:
U.S. officials say they have identified five men they believe might be behind the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year. The officials say they have enough evidence to justify seizing them by military force as suspected terrorists — but not enough proof to try them in a U.S. civilian court as the Obama administration prefers. So the officials say the men remain at large while the FBI gathers more evidence. The decision not to seize the men militarily underscores the White House's aim to move away from hunting terrorists as enemy combatants and toward trying them as criminals in a civilian justice system.
Consider the implications of this report: Our government/military/intelligence community has the information and capacity to haul in at least five of the suspected Benghazi terrorists, but eight months after the deadly raid, they remain free men entirely because of the Obama administration's ideological obsession with furnishing foreign terrorists with civilian trials. Will the American people stand for this? Remember, this is the same White House that refuses to close the door on using drone strikes to kill US citizens on American soil even if they aren't in the act of carrying out an imminent attack. They've already liquidated several Al Qaeda-linked US citizens on foreign soil. They've expanded "signature strikes" and changed the metric for calculating civilian casualties. In this case, we've identified five foreign nationals who we've determined to be responsible for participating in the sacking our Benghazi consulate and the murder of four Americans -- including a sitting ambassador -- yet they're roaming the streets indefinitely while we try to build an airtight criminal case against them. President Drone's double-standard here is completely baffling beyond the realm of political posturing. Obama feels the need to distinguish himself from his predecessor, even as he adopts and expands many Bush-era policies. So he's doubled down on civilian trials for terrorists and banning certain harsh interrogation techniques. In fairness, such techniques are only useful in wringing actionable intel from captured terrorists. Obama's policy essentially dictates that terrorists either be (a) summarily executed or (b) afforded the legal rights on US citizens. That's insane. Entire books have been written about the perils of treating global jihad and terrorism as a routine law enforcement proposition, but this new development reads like dark satire.
After the Boston bombings, we had a robust debate about the appropriate legal treatment for Dzokhar Tsarnaev, an American citizen arrested on US soil. Authorities decided not to treat him as an enemy combatant, which I thought was the right call, despite the deeply questionable and premature Miranda warning issuance. Here, we've apparently decided to not even detain a handful of foreign nationals believed to have participated in the 9/11/12 terrorist attacks because we're skittish about "rights" and other legal niceties (that arguably shouldn't even apply to foreign terrorists at all) that may complicate their run-of-the-mill civilian trials back home. Incredible. I'll leave you with this irony: Even if you share the Obama administration's view that foreign terrorists should be treated like Americans with a full panoply of legal rights, the goal of securing convictions from domestic juries was severely hampered by the Benghazi talking points flap. Because the State Department and White House contorted Susan Rice's talking points beyond recognition for political reasons, she appeared on national television and directly contradicted Libyan officials' (accurate) assessments with false information. This infuriated the Libyans, who proceeded to drag their feet on granting the FBI access to the attack site. Or the "crime scene," depending on how you look at it. In other words, one of the administration's political games (manipulating the talking points) ended up stifling the crucial evidence-gathering stage of any successful criminal investigation -- which, in turn, is a central element of the White House's highly political "criminal justice" approach to terrorism. Welcome to "accountability," Obama style. It's ad hoc, incoherent, politicized madness.
UPDATE - Allahpundit wonders if something's up and floats an interesting theory:
The fact that O’s allegedly willing to ignore all that and demand criminal procedures suggests something else is up. Theory: The Libyan government is resisting U.S. officials’ requests to either authorize a drone strike or let special forces hit the ground to round these people up. Acquiescing in a heavy-handed American military action against the locals could be dangerous for a weak regime that’s surrounded (sometimes literally) by jihadists and various militias. If O ignores their warnings and attacks the Benghazi five anyway, and the government there is consequently destabilized, he’ll take all kinds of heat for that. If he holds off at their request and blames them for obstructing him via leaks to the media, he’ll take all kinds of heat for not insisting upon justice for the murderers of an American diplomat. So, possibly, he’s chosen the middle course — hold off on attacking but claim it’s because he’s building a criminal case, which at least promises future action.
And this is only half funny: "Imagine the subpoenas being prepared at this very moment to find out who leaked them this scoop on Benghazi."
"I'll take responsibility for that...[it] was an incredibly bad idea."
Yeah, it was. It was even a worse idea for Lerner to mislead the public about whether the question was planted (the questioner also initially denied any such arrangement). She was the one who planted it, apparently at Miller's behest. Lerner's lies continue to pile up, yet she somehow still has her job. It's also useful to recall exactly what Miller told House Members on Friday. In response to a line of questioning on this narrow matter, Miller's responses were evasive and couched in passive language. He seemed intent on keeping the provenance of the planted question as hazy as possible. Now that the media noose has tightened on the specifics, Miller apparently felt compelled to admit that it was actually his idea all along -- adding obligatory denunciations of his own brainchild for good measure. It was all just another bout malice-free, foolish incompetence, you see. In his testimony today, Miller again insisted that the widespread targeting program was not the product of partisan bias (cough), but rather arose from a desire to be more "efficient." Allahpundit flayed this talking point yesterday:
If the IRS’s big problem circa 2010 was that it was overwhelmed with nonprofit applications (or so the agency falsely claims), why did that lead to unusually onerous demands for information? The typical government response to unmanageable workloads is to cut corners, yet the agency ended up asking Engelbrecht to send them copies of every Facebook post and Tweet that she ever sent, amid hundreds of other questions. That’s odd, no? You would think the big scandal to come out of a glut of tax-exempt petitions is that those petitions were being approved unusually quickly and with little scrutiny. Instead the opposite happened. Go figure.
Basically, the "efficiency" excuse makes no sense because the IRS created more work for itself by pummeling conservative groups with insanely granular, intrusive, and frequently offensive questions and document demands. To recap: Miller told Lerner to plant a question. She did, then pretended she didn't. When that story fell apart, Miller admitted that it had taken place, but danced around questions about who ordered it. When that jig was up, he raised his hand for blame. Both he and his predecessor publicly denied that any targeting was happening, then Miller withheld the truth after he was looped in, even after members of Congress followed-up with additional inquiries. Lerner did the same. But for some reason they expect us to trust them when they tell us there was no partisan motive here, even though they've conceded that no liberal or progressive groups were targeted inappropriately. Media reports and anecdotal evidence bear out the unequal treatment, too. With all that context in place, I'll leave you with Miller's sad-face quotation about public perceptions of the agency he runs -- which he himself said is guilty of "horrible customer service:"
Outgoing IRS commissioner Steven Miller on the perception of the agency after scandal: "It breaks my heart."— Chris Moody (@Chris_Moody) May 21, 2013
I desperately want to believe Pfeiffer. I’ve known him for years. I like him. He’s never lied to me. But Pfeiffer is part of an institution that has demonstrated an inability and/or unwillingness to tell the full truth about the IRS scandal and a spate of other controversies. The White House can’t be trusted. That depressing conclusion (not unique to the Obama White House, sadly) was driven home Monday when spokesman Jay Carney used his daily briefing to announce that presidential advisers knew more about the IRS scandal a bit sooner than previously disclosed...In politics, as in life, when you constantly change your story, even on small matters, you sow doubt about your credibility and competence. In different ways, each of the so-called Obama scandals revolve around the issue of trust (as I wrote here, here, here, here, and here).
Following the attack in Benghazi, senior State Department officials close to Hillary Clinton ordered the removal of a mid-level official who had no role in security decisions and has never been told the charges against him. He is now accusing Clinton’s team of scapegoating him for the failures that led to the death of four Americans last year...“The overall goal is to restore my honor,” said Maxwell, who has now filed grievances regarding his treatment with the State Department’s human resources bureau and the American Foreign Service Association, which represents the interests of foreign-service officers...“I had no involvement to any degree with decisions on security and the funding of security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi,” he said.
The State Department declined to comment on the reasons that Maxwell and the other officials were placed on administrative leave, or on what the four were told about the reasons for the decision. It did confirm that the ARB did not recommend direct disciplinary action because it didn’t find misconduct or a direct breach of duty by the officials...Since the leave is not considered a formal disciplinary action, Maxwell has no means to appeal the status, as he would if he had been outright fired. To this day, he says, nobody from the State Department has ever told him why he was singled out for discipline. He has never had access to the classified portion of the ARB report, where all of the details regarding personnel failures leading up to Benghazi are confined. He also says he has never been shown any evidence or witness testimony linking him to the Benghazi incident.
Soon after being removed from his job, Maxwell was visited at his home late one evening and directed to sign a letter acknowledging his administrative leave and forfeiting his right to enter the State Department. He refused to sign, responding in writing that it amounted to an admission he had done something wrong. “They just wanted me to go away but I wouldn’t just go away,” he said. “I knew Chris [Stevens]. Chris was a friend of mine.” The decision to place Maxwell on administrative leave was made by Clinton’s chief of staff Cheryl Mills, according to three State Department officials with direct knowledge of the events. On the day after the unclassified version of the ARB’s report was released in December, Mills called Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones and directed her to have Maxwell leave his job immediately...One State Department official close to the issue told The Daily Beast that Clinton’s people told the leadership of the NEA bureau that Maxwell would be given another job at State when the Benghazi scandal blew over. Maxwell said Jones assured him he would eventually be brought back to NEA as a “senior advisor,” but that Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff, reneged.
A CNN/ORC International survey released Sunday morning also indicates that congressional Republicans are not overplaying their hand when it comes to their reaction to the three controversies that have consumed the nation’s capital over the past week and a half. And the poll finds that a majority of Americans take all three issues seriously…According to the poll, 44% say statements made by the Obama administration soon after the attack were an attempt to intentionally mislead the public. Half of those questioned say those statements reflected what the Obama administration believed, at the time, had occurred. But 59% now say that the U.S government could have prevented the attack in Benghazi, up 11 points from last November. And only 37% say that congressional Republicans are overreacting in their handling of the matter, with 59% saying they’ve reacted appropriately.